26 August 2006

The Power of Music

The next session I attended at CiRCE was taught by John Mason Hodges and was entitled, “The Power of Music”. John is a wonderful and energetic teacher whose enthusiasm is contagious. The Wild Bunch had lunch with him on Friday and it was a blast! He’s witty, erudite, thoughtful, down-to-earth, and simply exudes joy. During John’s workshop, he began to unpack (for me, at least) what it means “to train our affections to love that which is good”.

As usual, my rabbit trails are italicized and colored for clarity.

Plato said that the ideal forms of things reflect and are analogous to virtue. Christ is the embodiment of truth, goodness, and beauty and virtue.

In the Greek mind, there were two ideas regarding music:

1. It’s based on mathematic proportions. Pythagoras discovered the natural connection between harmony and pitch.

If we take a string and pluck it, then divide it in half and pluck it again, the second pitch will be one octave higher than the first pitch. If we divide the string in thirds, the tone equals a triad. This is based on ratios that God built into the created order. I’m a bit fuzzy on this last point about the triad - my notes aren’t complete enough, I’m not that knowledgeable regarding music, and I don’t have my CD’s yet to be able to go back and relisten to this session. I hope to revisit this and try to clarify it when I get the chance. If I remember correctly, he went into more detail about this in a later session.

The Greek word for ratio is logos. In a previous blog entry I wrote this, which I think applies (the quote is a small excerpt from Peter Kreeft’s Socratic Logic; the rest has been tweaked just a bit from what I originally wrote): “ ‘logos: the unchangeable and necessary law for the very nature of things; a fact; objective truth.’ ”

“Jesus is the logos, not just the Word as we conceive of it in English, or the study of something as when we refer to a branch of knowledge with ‘-ology’, but the unchangeable and necessary law of everything - ‘In the beginning was the Unchangeable and Necessary Law of Everything, and the Unchangeable and Necessary Law of Everything was with God and the Unchangeable and Necessary Law of Everything was God. Through Him all things were made.’ ”

So, how does this apply to music? Well, this mathematical basis is the unchangeable and necessary law of music. Without this structure built into the physical world during creation, there would be no music. Music is built into the very fabric and physics of creation. And Scripture tells us that Christ is actually the Logos, so he is at the foundation of what makes music music and all things hold together in him, including music.

To the Greeks, the first ideas presented in John’s gospel (that the Logos was in the beginning, that the Logos was with God, that the Logos was God, and that through the Logos all things were made) were understandable, but the the idea presented several verses later, that the Logos was actually embodied and made incarnate (the Logos became flesh and dwelt among us) was absolutely shocking.

So, we come back to the ratio and proportion at the foundation of music. Music is mathematically harmonious, ideal order made vibrant enough for us to hear it, organized sound that imparts gracefulness and begins to teach the soul to love virtue. This reminded me of Andrew’s comment that the Kindergarten teacher’s most important job is to expose her charges to beauty.

2. The Muses were nine daughters of Zeus who inspired the arts: (I looked this up on Wikipedia and cleaned up the list John was struggling to come up with from memory) epic poetry, music and lyric poetry, history and heroic poetry, lyrics and love poetry, tragedy, hymns and sacred poetry, dance and choral song, comedy, and astronomy. The Muses all had the same mother, Memory. Inspiration is impossible without looking back in time.

The Muses were said to have sung their inspiration; the whole universe vibrated with their harmony.

To be amused is to be uninspired by the Muses. Amusement is a break from being mused. Consider the irony that, today, we use music to amuse ourselves.

Augustine wrote, regarding rhythm: “The material world includes the soul, which is invisible material. It has form. Rhythm forms and gives shape to the soul. It shapes the way we perceive things and contributes to the training of our sensibilities to recognize and love beauty when we see it. There is (or maybe “should be”?) a connection between melody, harmony, rhythm, and what the student loves.

Music is numbers in audible form.

Gothic cathedral architecture of Christendom also has a harmony of number as seen in the shape and proportions of the building, the spacing of windows, etc. Musical harmonies were composed specifically for the architecture and acoustics of Chartres Cathedral. Theology is the center of the liberal arts. This is shown in the south entrance of Chartres, where the tympanum shows Christ in the middle with the seven liberal arts and a representative practitioner of each art arrayed around Him.

There were three aspects of beauty in the Middle Ages (see Art and Music in the Middle Ages, by Umberto Eco):

  1. the Greek idea of proportion and number

  2. light: a symbol of unity because white light is a unity of all color; it is essential to seeing and knowing

  3. symbol
Thomas (Aquinas?): “Art is the science of constructing things according to their natures.” We moderns no longer think about the nature of things.

Bacon started it. Instead of adapting to the nature of things, his perspective was that we can know enough to have power over things.

Virtue is doing. Art is making and requires knowing the nature of the materials being used. To apply this to music, medievally, a musical instrument player wasn’t considered a musician, nor was a composer considered a musician. Musical theorists were considered true musicians because they understood the nature (the structure and form) of music.

Aquinas said that beauty is that which pleases upon being seen and is composed of unity, proportion, and clarity (understandability). We, however, have separated the object from the subjective experience. Kant believed that appreciation is a subjective act. We need to recalibrate ourselves to feel what we ought to feel.

We current-day Christians acknowledge that there is absolute truth and absolute goodness, but we don’t acknowledge that there is absolute beauty. We must press this contradiction with our students to help them see where we are today.

We moderns have a deep-seated prejudice against reasoning about music. I was discussing this with a friend last night and she commented that a fairly well-known author told her recently that he is seeing a new attitude in Christian teens - they don’t want to discuss the story or cinematic elements of a film, even after the fact, because it will destroy the experience of enjoying the film. My dh and I have observed the same thing in many adults of our acquaintance.

The power of music is that it reveals through general revelation. It should be studied instead of used, and understood in terms of number. This reminds me of C.S. Lewis’s An Experiment in Criticism, which presents the same idea in terms of literature and books.

I don’t know that I can pull this together any more than I’ve done here. I also don’t know that I agree or disagree with anything. (You’ll notice that I included fewer rabbit trails on this session than I’ve had in the past.) I have a feeling that this was so new to me that I didn’t even know what to write as I tried to take notes and that I left a lot out, so it feels disjointed. I haven’t really given these points much thought. My goal today was simply to try to process it a bit more, even if I don’t understand it yet. I look forward to the arrival of my conference CD’s so my dh and I can listen to this one and try to puzzle it out together . John’s next workshop was much more practical and I might find some connections between the two workshops when I get there. (I’m working through my notes chronologically, so it’ll be awhile.)

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